Court Throws Out Florida School Voucher Program
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
There's been another setback in the school voucher movement. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of vouchers four years ago, but there has not been a surge in state-sponsored voucher plans as some had predicted. And now a court in Florida has thrown out that state's school voucher program. As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the debate over school vouchers is far from over.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:
If the US Supreme Court's 2002 ruling in favor of a small voucher program in Cleveland proved anything, it was this: States, not the nation's highest court, would determine the future of school vouchers, although it took a while for it to sink in, says Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-voucher group.
Ms. JEANNE ALLEN (Center for Education Reform): Yes, there were many people who thought that the Supreme Court's approval of school choice was going to be the beginning of a proliferation of programs and the end of challenges.
SANCHEZ: But in state after state vouchers have run up against political and legal barriers; case in point, Florida. This month Florida's highest court struck down the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program, the nation's first statewide voucher plan, a plan that had been in place since 2000, despite the opposition from teachers' unions, school boards and the NAACP. Although the Florida decision was limited to Florida, the question it raised could easily apply to just about every state: How does a state's Constitution define a uniform public education? In Florida's case, says Allen, the court's response was flawed.
Ms. ALLEN: Because private schools are not government run, they are all absolutely going to be different. What the justices said is, `No, there can only be one kind of education the public pays for in Florida, and it's the existing public school system,' which is a travesty when you consider that a huge number of public schools are failing kids.
SANCHEZ: Without vouchers, says Allen, kids will remain trapped in what she calls `uniformly bad schools.' That may sound like a compelling argument for vouchers, but, again, state Constitutions are all over the map in terms of how they define a uniform public education, leaving it up to the courts to decide if vouchers complement or threaten that uniformity. That's why vouchers have stalled. Another reason? Politics, says Alex Molnar, professor of education at Arizona State University.
Professor ALEX MOLNAR (Arizona State University): These are not programs that are moving forward on the back of broad public support. Every time that they've gone to referendum, they've been defeated. And they've always been defeated by roughly the same margin, 2:1. Voucher programs have been a tough sell. People don't like them.
SANCHEZ: In 16 states last year lawmakers considered an array of voucher proposals. All but three died, which is not to say that voucher proponents have given up, despite enormous odds. Again, Jeanne Allen.
Ms. ALLEN: As long as you have union- and other association-driven public school interests that are opposed to school choice, you will have political challenges. That is a fact and a reality that will exist as long as this issue exists.
SANCHEZ: A couple of exceptions: Utah last year approved a statewide voucher program exclusively for special education students; and Ohio turned its small 10-year-old voucher program in Cleveland into a statewide program with up to 18,000 students in low-performing schools now eligible for vouchers, making it the second-largest school voucher program in the country, second only to the federal government.
The Bush administration has created a voucherlike program for hundreds of thousands of students displayed by Hurricane Katrina. Until their schools back home are up and running, they're eligible for a voucher worth up to $7,500 towards tuition at private and parochial schools elsewhere. That, along with a federal voucher program for low-income kids in Washington, DC, makes the US government the biggest sponsor of school vouchers right now. As for the future of vouchers in the states, Jeanne Allen and Alex Molnar offer two views.
Ms. ALLEN: The activity for vouchers will continue to grow because demand is continuing to grow.
Prof. MOLNAR: Proponents of vouchers, such as Jeanne Allen, like to argue, `Why shouldn't poor kids be empowered with this choice?' Well, what choice would that be exactly?
SANCHEZ: Molnar says even in private and parochial schools that take vouchers today, there just aren't enough slots to create really large-scale programs, in part because there aren't enough schools willing to accept poor kids with a voucher. And that, says Molnar, may be the biggest hurdle of all. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.